REVIEW: LADY DAY
AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL
at Vintage Theatre
by Paul Bishop
“Southern trees bear strange fruit…
Here is a strange and bitter crop”
Like my experience of the performance at Vintage Theatre that evening, I am conflicted as I write this review for LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL. When I first heard of this show and its star, I was absolutely ecstatic. I adore this haunting musical and Mary Louise Lee is such an accomplished actress and so prominent in the arts and our community. I also know that she has such an intimate history with this role in particular and has been celebrated for her award winning performance as Ms. Billie Holiday. My personal experience of this particular production left a lot to be desired.
First – a history lesson on the evening in question at Emerson’s Bar and Grill and Ms. Billie Holiday. This musical is based on one of Ms. Holiday’s final performances in March 1959 and only four months after this show she passed away. Even her death at the young age of 44 was tragic – Billie died of cirrhosis of the liver due to alcoholism and was handcuffed to her hospital bed for drug possession.
The two most recognizable aspects that people are drawn to about Billie Holiday are her voice and her tragedy. This production did allude to both of these aspects but never fully grasped them. Please understand that I enjoyed Mary Louise’s fabulous singing, and while she did pay tribute to Billie Holiday, I never saw her fully embrace the role. The best way to put this is that I thought that Ms. Lee had moments of greatness onstage and she portrayed nuances of Billie, but she never took on the full embodiment of this iconic role. There are several idiosyncrasies that Ms. Holiday is known for including her raspy and wispy voice; her mastery of manipulating phrasing and tempo; and the little lifts that she does while singing. While Mary Louise did evoke moments of Billie’s vocalization it was not consistent throughout the show. It also baffled me when Mary Louise belted several of Billie’s songs when she even says during the show that her character could not belt like Bessie Smith.
Now let’s go onto the tragedy that is Billie. I feel that this musical should be a complete downward spiral of a legendary icon and a train-wreck that you can not turn away from. When Billie takes the stage, we should already know that things are not right and we just go downhill from here. Once she picks up that drink for the first time, she should never be without it. And then when she leaves the stage to get a little moonlight (heroin) she should be almost incoherent. While Mary Louise was very charismatic, she was a bit too sober throughout the show and it was lacking that progressive spiral that we were all looking for.
I did enjoy Trent Hines’ piano playing, but his role as Jimmy Powers was a little too comedic and comical for my tastes. This is a man who has played for and supported this tragic singer for several months and experienced the same tragic outcome every night of the week. I expected him to be a little bit more stoic or broken down because as hard as he tries to help Ms. Holiday, she is too far gone. Also as she rambles on in her stream of consciousness throughout the show, it is his job to be the stability of the show and to guide her along. While this small supporting role could have been more complex, Mr. Hines portrayal came off a little one-note.
I must also hold director Betty Hart accountable for the several missteps in this production with characterization and staging. From the moment Ms. Holiday walks onto the stage she acts scared and rushes off which sends an awkward tone to the show. I also did not understand adding in an intermission for a 90 minute show that totally broke with entire flow of this show. I also would have loved to see that delicious downward spiral of tragedy from Ms. Holiday instead of just pushing it at the end of the show. While Mary Louise has played this role before, I wish that the director pushed her as an actress and truly embraced her personas heartbreaking tragedy.
As I said before, I am very conflicted as I write this review but I will say that if you want a fabulous night of singing then check out the amazing Mary Louise Lee as she pays tribute to Ms. Billie Holiday.
LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL is fascinating audiences January 12th through February 18th* at Vintage Theatre. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays and Monday, January 22 at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Feb 1, 8 and 15 at 7:30 p.m. Vintage Theatre is located at 1468 Dayton Street in Aurora. Tickets are available online at www.vintagetheatre.org or by calling 303-856-7830.
PHOTO CREDIT: RDG Photography